Original Article Published On the Jerusalem Post

The two organizations are in the midst of 12 days of hiking in New York with teams consisting of people with and without disabilities.

NEW YORK – Not every hiking trail in the world is accessible for people with disabilities, but don’t tell that to Friends of Access Israel (FAISR) and Paratrek. They simply don’t agree. 

The two organizations, which have already accompanied four people with paraplegia to reach the not-so-accessible top of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, are in the midst of 12 days of hiking in New York with teams consisting of people with and without disabilities. 

The USA treks (August 1 to 3 and 8 to 11) are taking place in Rockefeller State Park in Pleasantville, New York (USA). Teams from Israel and Delaware, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida and New York in the United States are participating in hikes that vary in level of difficulty. Each day’s hiking adventure is led by a person with a disability.

 August 1 is Team Colton, August 2 is Team Alan, August 3 is Team Fred and August 4, the only day taking place in New York City’s Central Park, is Team Paratrek, named after the trekker vehicle that assists people with physical disabilities to access rugged terrains. August 9 to 11 is Team Chapel Haven, in honor of hike participants from Chapel Haven in New Haven, Connecticut (USA), a nationally accredited transitional living program founded in 1972 and devoted to teaching adults with cognitive disabilities and social disabilities to live independent and productive lives.

James A. Lassner, Executive Director of FAISR, refers to the hike as the “FAISR Universal Expedition – USA Trek #1,” with the hashtag, #AccessibleTogether. Lassner notes, “The hike/trek capitalizes on team members’ respective physical strengths, mental toughness and diverse abilities.” 

The word “Universal” is meaningful and intentional. “Universal’ is the concept of planning in advance to build events, schools, workplaces and technology so they are usable by a wide range of people, regardless of age or disability status. While universal design promotes access for individuals with disabilities, it also benefits everyone. Universal has added meaning because the word “universal” contains the letters ‘USA’ and the word ‘Israel.’” 

Colton Robinson, an 11-year-old model who was born with spina bifida, is the namesake for Team Colton. When Colton was five years old he was a finalist for a “Cutest Kid” contest for Parents Magazine and was signed by a modeling agency in NYC. He was the first model signed to this agency’s diversity division. Colton has modeled for Tommy Hilfiger, Runway of Dreams, Toys R Us, Target, Lands End and many other companies. He was also the first child that uses a wheelchair to model in New York Fashion Week. 

“Colton is currently a model for Target stores both online and at their various USA locations. More importantly he is a fine model of being a perfect gentleman. We have a lot to learn from him!” says Lassner.

The hike’s first day marked the US debut of the Paratrek Trekker, the brainchild of Israeli inventor Omer Zur. On his post-army trip many years ago, Zur wanted to hike in Turkey with his father, a person with quadriplegia as a result of fighting in the Sinai during the Six Day War. Zur soon realized that he had to come up with a suitable device that can handle off-road hiking without taking away his father’s independence. The simple-looking yet highly sophisticated Paratrek trekker can successfully traverse through rough and rocky terrain, steep inclines, narrow paths, over sand, boulders, rock and gravel. 

The Trekker successfully navigated Kilimanjaro with people with paraplegia less than two years ago.

“We are thrilled to debut our trekker at the FAISR Universal Expedition in New York. Our trekker has made it to 19,341 feet of Mount Kilimanjaro with FAISR, the Dead Sea in Israel which is the lowest place on earth and many other sites and trails around the world,” said Zur. “Our vision is to make it possible for individuals, families and groups to choose for themselves if, when, and where they wish to enjoy the great outdoors. As we introduce our trekker, we are confident that National and State parks will be interested in them as they will enhance accessibility at each of their venues.”

Fred Maahs Jr, a wheelchair user who is also chief operations officer for Travel for All and editor of Melange, Accessibility for All magazine, is heading up Team Fred on Day 3. 

“Travel for All is proud to be a partner of Friends of Access Israel and to assist with the travel arrangements for the Faisr Universal Expedition. Our missions align – we both believe that the world should be accessible and inclusive so that all people can explore and experience its beauty and wonders.”

Future hikes and treks will take place mostly in Israel with some events taking place in the United States. The ultimate goal is to make specific trails in both countries accessible for everyone.

Friends of Access Israel, together with its collaborative partner, Access Israel, strive to improve accessibility and inclusion globally for people with disabilities and the elderly via advocacy, education and inclusion. 

“With each improvement we empower them to live self-determined lives enabling them to work, travel, study and consume with dignity, equality and maximum independence,” reports FAISR’s Lassner. 

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Original Article Published On The JNS

“Without Chai Lifeline and everything they’ve done for me and my family, I don’t know how I would’ve pulled through,” says cancer survivor Pessy Zeiger, 19, of Monsey, N.Y., who plans to bike the 65- to 70-mile route starting and ending off at Camp Simcha, which she refers to as “the happiest place on earth!”

Tour de France, meet the Tour de Simcha and Bike4Chai.

While the 23-day, 2,000-mile Tour de France is an impressive ride geared to the world’s most elite riders, Bike4Chai (for men, July 29) and the Tour de Simcha (Aug. 5), in support of Chai Lifeline, is open to everyone, and each year brings smiles to the faces of riders, spectators, and especially, children and families dealing with serious illness.

Chai Lifeline is an international children’s health support network that provides assistance and year-round services to thousands of families confronting illness, crisis and loss.

“Without Chai Lifeline and everything they’ve done for me and my family, I don’t know how I would’ve pulled through,” says cancer survivor Pessy Zeiger, 19, of Monsey, N.Y., who plans to bike the 65- to 70-mile route starting and ending off at Camp Simcha, which she refers to as “the happiest place on earth!”

She is pleased that she can participate in the bike ride and give back to an organization that was helpful to her and her family.

“I was always athletic and loved riding, but was never majorly into it,” she recounts. “Then I got cancer and was unable to get on a bike for five years. Now that I was part of Chai Lifeline, I heard so much about Tour de Simcha and wanted to do it so badly, but was unable to at that point. Two summers ago, I got invited to share my story at the TDS pasta party the night before the ride, and I made it my goal to join the ride as soon as I would be able to. Now, after four years of intense physical therapy, my muscles in my leg are strong enough, and I’m able to bend my knee enough to get on a bike. I’ve been training for the past few months and am really looking forward to riding!”

Zeiger is still closely connected to the Chai Lifeline family, which she says “got me to meet new friends going through the same situation I was in. We laugh together and share in each other’s triumphs. To this day, these are my closest friends. All the events and things they do throughout the year give me the strength to keep fighting!”

Cancer survivor Pessy Zeiger, 19 of Monsey, N.Y., plans to bike the 65- to 70-mile route starting and ending off at Camp Simcha. Photo by Lenny Groysman.

Pessy will be joined by her father, Mendy Zeiger. He reports that he rides for his health, usually training in Harriman State Park. He then shares how he and his family have personally benefitted from the organization.

“Chai Lifeline is a wonderful organization. I knew about it before and have been riding in their rides since 2012. This year is my seventh or eighth ride. Every year, when they put a child (who had benefited from Chai Lifeline’s kindness) on the dais at the pre-ride pasta loading, it was a tear-jerker. They were real children undergoing suffering. Now, it has a whole different meaning.”

To date, Pessy has raised $5,000 from 66 donors. (Her story can be read here.)

Mendy Zeiger can’t imagine what it would have been like going through his daughter’s cancer treatment without Chai Lifeline. “The hospital stay would have been miserable [otherwise]. They refer you to the top doctors. They have knowledge of what it takes to have a child in the hospital. They offer food, volunteers, guidance, help with insurance, and they understand the amount of work it takes and the logistics required for parents. There are so many pieces … .”

He notes playfully that Pessy is a “much faster” cyclist, and they won’t be riding together so he “won’t hold her back.”

‘To exercise and to raise tzedakah’

Rider Avi Lazarus of Spring Valley, N.Y., retired last year from a career in the retails sales industry. He was quick to mention that he is not the oldest rider, as had been circulated. “I’m not the oldest guy, though I have been in the past,” he reports.

Lazarus says “I ride for a dual purpose—to exercise and to raise tzedakah for a wonderful organization. How can you turn them down?”

Rider Avi Lazarus of Spring Valley, N.Y. Photo by Lenny Groysman.

He rides with his two sons. “They make sure their old man is OK. They give me the incentive to go on—they fill my bottles for me!” In addition to enjoying being with them, he adds, “I have made a lot of friends” along the way.

Bike4Chai kicks off with an opening ceremony on July 28. The 100-mile route will begin in the early hours of July 29 with participants stopping mid-ride for at Camp Simcha (Chai Lifeline’s overnight summer-camp program for children and teens with life-threatening and lifelong illnesses), where they will receive physical and spiritual rejuvenation.

Tour de Simcha kicks off on the morning of Aug. 5 at Camp Simcha with what organizers refer to as “The World’s Greatest Start Line.” The 38- and 65-mile routes also end at Camp Simcha at “The World’s Greatest Finish Line.”

Pessy Zeiger with her father, Mendy Zeiger, at the George Washington Bridge. Photo by Lenny-Groysman.

The races raise millions of dollars each year for Chai Lifeline.

According to Yoel Margolese, director of Bike4Chai, this year’s race “will feature a record number of participants all with one common goal—to be there for children and families. The dedication and commitment of our riders is inspiring and shows our families that they are not alone.”

Rabbi Simcha Scholar, CEO of Chai Lifeline, adds that “riders and their supporters play a critical role in raising funds and awareness for Chai Lifeline’s important work. Every dollar raised enables us to provide year-round support and services to thousands of families confronting illness, crisis and loss, all at no cost to them.”

While all riders and donors come out in support of this important cause, some riders and teams go out of their way to maintain a lighter, more playful spirit. The Knight Riders, comprised of 14 participants, have already raised an impressive $91,248 from 545 donors. The legendary team proudly comes in last every year and includes a four-time cancer survivor amputee who rides a hand bike, a teenager with cerebral palsy, an Ironman competitor who serves as the team motivator, an artist and an army chaplain.

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Original Article Published On The JNS

In addition to his ability to roll with the punches through numerous trades in his NBA career—the first for an Israeli—Casspi will be remembered as a goodwill ambassador for Jewish causes.

When Israeli basketball player Omri Casspi announced his retirement from professional basketball this week, fans and colleagues in the United States, Israel and the world of sports management were somewhat sad and a bit disappointed, though they weren’t totally surprised. Casspi, 33, the first Israeli drafted in the NBA, played 10 seasons with an assortment of NBA teams before returning to Israel to finish out his career where it all began—with Maccabi Tel Aviv. He has been suffering from a knee injury, which prevented him from being on the court for much of the last season.

At a press conference on Sunday, Casspi reflected on his career. “Basketball gave me a lot,” he said. “I’ve reached the highest heights—playing against LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, going to the White House. I worked very, very hard to achieve what I achieved, and I’m leaving with a sigh of relief and very great satisfaction.”

The 6-foot, 9-inch forward made his professional debut in 2005, at age 17, with Maccabi Tel Aviv. In June 2009, Casspi was selected by the Sacramento Kings as the 23rd overall pick. He played for the Kings twice and did stints with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, New Orleans Pelicans, Minnesota Timberwolves, Golden State Warriors and the Memphis Grizzlies. While he was cut by the Warriors during their 2017-18 championship season, the team did present him with a championship ring.

In addition to his ability to roll with the punches through numerous trades in his NBA career, Casspi will be remembered as a goodwill ambassador for Jewish and Israeli causes. He attended Jewish and Israel events in the many communities in which he played, and he stayed after games to sign autographs and pose for selfies with any child who requested one. He also brought NBA and WNBA players, as well as other celebrities, to Israel to see the country, pray at the Western Wall and eat authentic Israeli food prepared by his mother. He runs the Omri Casspi Foundation, which sponsors these trips with the aim of showing the world what Israel is really like.

Israeli professional basketball player Omri Casspi attends a special basketball Workshop with Israeli kids in Ramla on Aug. 7, 2016. Photo by Avi Dishi/Flash90

In 2017, Casspi was one of seven athletes chosen to participate in the torch-lighting ceremony of the Maccabiah Games in Israel.

‘The way he carried himself was very special’

Liron Fanan, a close friend and colleague of Casspi’s from the world of basketball in both Israel and the United States, worked hard to collect her thoughts about his big announcement before sharing them on Facebook:

“Took me a while to find the right words for this post … this is way more than basketball. @omricasspi18 your journey is an inspiration. Your hard work, dedication and toughness are the true definition of motivation. Your passion for the game made you dream big. You made it to the highest level and inspired others to work hard, believe and dream as well. I want to thank you and your family for allowing me to be a part of the family and this incredible journey. … The trips, the people and all the adventures we experienced together. The things we dreamed of and made a reality. You pushed me to go harder and you are a big part of where I am today. This is just the start of a new chapter in your journey, and I can’t wait to see the next adventure … .”

Fanan is currently director of player development and a scout for the Canton Charge, affiliated with the Cleveland Cavaliers. When she left her distinguished career with Maccabi Tel Aviv many years ago and wasn’t sure what next to do in the basketball world, she reports, “I was lucky enough to be close to Omri, and started working with him and managing him. I connected him with his American agency and managed everything he did off-court on the marketing side, and in his personal life. I did that for 10 years.”

Through her work with Casspi, Fanan decided to start her own agency, 2Talent Sports Management, where she served as an agent and player services professional. In that capacity, she placed 48 players in Europe each year, signing them to teams and handling all of their needs. Clients of note have included Amar’e Stoudemire, Kostas Papanikolau, Donta Smith and Shawn James.

Israel’s Omri Casspi, star of the Sacramento Kings basketball team of the NBA visits at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. May 01, 2011. Photo by Kobi Gideon / Flash90

Matan Siman-Tov, the current owner of 2Talent Sports Management, also speaks highly of his friend. “To me, Omri means the world. He introduced me to the world of the NBA and to the world of being an ambassador, to the world of being a role model. Twelve years ago when I started the agency, I was privileged to have a partner, Liron Fanan; a guy by the name of Omri Casspi introduced us to the world of professionalism. The way he worked out, the way he carried himself was very special. Omri taught me a lot; he made me a better person and a better agent.”

In a video statement, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver wished Casspi well. “Congratulations on a fantastic NBA career. Of course, you were the first player from Israel to play in this league and everyone in Israel is aware of that, but you’re not the last, of course. Many players have learned from you and followed in your footsteps. I know you will continue working with us at the NBA. You have so much to offer the game.”

And, being that he is only in his early 30s, the world as well. The Jewish, Israeli and basketball worlds eagerly await news of Casspi’s next pursuit.

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Original Article Published On The JNS

The famed race, which each year covers 3,413 kilometers (2,121 miles) over 21 stages in 23 days, featured eight riders wearing the Israel Start-Up Nation jersey.

When Belgian professional road and cyclo-cross racer Wout van Aert took the 21st and final stage of the Tour de France and Slovenian cyclist Tadej Pogačar won the overall 2021 Tour de France on Sunday, there weren’t many Israeli riders in sight. Even without Israeli riders winning the race, this year’s Tour de France was an unprecedented victory for the Jewish state.

The famed race, which each year covers 3,413 kilometers (2,121 miles) over 21 stages in 23 days, featured eight riders wearing the Israel Start-Up Nation jersey. The Israel team, which included two Canadians, five Europeans and Israeli-born Omer Goldstein, put Israel and Israel cycling on the map in perpetuity.

Israel’s Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov was on hand at the finish line in Paris to greet the riders and show just how much Israel cycling matters.

“We are so proud to see an Israeli team carry the Israeli flag at one of the largest sporting events in the world,” he said. “Thanks to the partnership with the Ministry of Tourism, the team is promoting our brand of tourism to Israel throughout the race. Events of this kind are the biggest generators of tourism in the world, so it was important for me to come and learn about what is needed, and how it will be possible to bring major international sporting events to Israel on the day the skies open.”

Thanks in large part to the visionary leadership and financial backing of the team’s co-owner, Canadian-Israeli billionaire Sylvan Adams, the world is beginning to take note of Israel as a bike-racing country and as a tourist destination. In May 2018, Adams, known for bringing positive attention through such stunts as bringing Madonna to Israel for the Eurovision song competition, arranged to have Israel host the three-week Giro d’Italia bike race.

Israel Start-Up Nation rider leads the peloton at the Tour de France in front of the Arc de Triomphe, July 2021. Credit: Courtesy.

Adams is proud of Israel Start-Up Nation’s performance at this year’s Tour De France. “ISN’s second Tour represented another building block in the team’s growth. For the first time, we were on the podium, with Michael Woods earning the iconic polka-dot climber’s jersey,” he said. “We also had our share of bad luck, with terrible crashes destroying our GC hopes on the first day.

“But the team held strong and was cheered all along the roads of France, with shouts of Israel, Israel, Allez [Go!]! Also, allez Start-Up Nation in recognition of the team moniker and allez Chris Froome, in respect of our great four-time Tour winner. We have put the ‘Start-Up Nation’ on the world map. And a special mention of our Israeli Omer Goldstein for racing like a consummate pro, despite being in his first Tour de France.”

‘Quick to change focus and fight for new goals’

Israel Start-Up Nation boasted several noteworthy accomplishments throughout the three-week race, while also facing some challenges. It finished in the top 10 on nine stages and the top five on three occasions. Canadian Michael Woods took the KOM (red polka-dot leaders’ jersey with blue snowcapped mountains and the words “RIDE ON” at the base) after a big push on Stage 14. Woods finished both third and fifth during the Tour de France, while teammate Dan Martin of Ireland made the top five with an impressive performance on the final mountain stage.

Sports manager Rik Verbrugghe says the riders should be proud of the way they fought to overcome a difficult start to the race. On the first day, seven out of eight on the Israeli team were involved in several crashes. One was caused by a fan who stepped onto the course to unfurl a banner. “We had a challenging beginning, but we never lost morale, and the guys were quick to change focus and fight for new goals,” he said.

Canadian-Israeli billionaire Sylvan Adams (center) poses with other members of Team Israel Start-Up Nation, July 2021. Credit: Courtesy.

The Tour concluded three weeks later in Paris with the traditional finish on the Champs-Élysées. The Israeli team finished with a strong performance as André Greipel of Germany sprinted to fifth place. The final stage—Stage 21, 67 flat miles (108 kilometers) from Chatou to Paris at the Champs-Élysées—concluded with Israel riders Omer Goldstein in fifth place, Rick Zabel 23rd and Guillaume Bovin 29th.

Greipel had recently announced that this would be his final Tour de France. His teammates, mindful of what this race means to him, positioned him near the front for the sprint and at the end.

“This was an emotional day, knowing that I would take on my last Tour de France stage. In the sprint, due to the new finish, everybody gambled a bit in the headwind, and I guess I gambled a bit too much,” reported Greipel, who vocalized wishing he finished even higher in the pack. “I would have liked a better result, so there is some disappointment now but also relief as I could finish another Tour de France.”

Goldstein spoke more succinctly and playfully at the finish line. “It was the hardest and most enjoyable race of my life. What do I want now? To rest, and leave the bike … ”

This year’s Israel Start-Up Nation consisted of Guillaume Boivin, Chris Froome, Omer Goldstein, André Greipel, Reto Hollenstein, Dan Martin, Michael Woods and Rick Zabel.

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